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English to become standard at primary school

Some fear primary school pupils will struggle to learn two foreign languages swissinfo C Helmle

Schoolchildren in Switzerland are to start learning English at primary school.

Cantonal education directors on Wednesday decided that all schools must teach at least two foreign languages at primary level. English will almost certainly be one them.

The cantonal authorities’ education committee said Switzerland must boost foreign language learning at primary school level in order to remain competitive on the European job market, despite fears among some teachers that the children will struggle to learn two new languages.

“Switzerland, as a multilingual country, cannot allow itself to trail behind in Europe, which has decided that teaching two foreign languages at primary school is feasible,” said Hans Stöckling, president of the committee.

In what is the latest development in a long-running debate on foreign language teaching in Switzerland, all but two of the 26 Swiss cantons agreed to the new measures. Lucerne and Appenzell Inner Rhodes abstained from the vote.

National standards

To coordinate the teaching systems across the cantons, the committee also drew up national standards for foreign language learning.

Scheduled to be in place by the beginning of the 2006 school year, these standards will include training courses for primary school teachers.

They also envisage the creation of a national agency to promote foreign exchanges and a national centre of competence for languages.

Cantonal differences

The committee stipulated that one of the foreign languages learnt at primary school must be a Swiss national language, while the other must be English.

The cantons struck a compromise over concerns that national languages take second place to English, and said is up to the cantons to decide which language they introduce first.

Most German-speaking cantons will introduce English lessons by the third year of primary school. They will then start French lessons two years later. However, cantons Bern, Basel City and Basel Country may introduce French lessons first.

In the majority of primary schools in French-speaking Switzerland, pupils will continue to learn German from the third year, then begin English lessons in the fifth year.

Meanwhile, in Ticino, both languages taught at primary school will be national ones, with English to be introduced from the seventh year.


Some teachers, mainly from German-speaking Switzerland, fear it will be too difficult for primary school pupils to learn two languages.

In particular, they argue, the children in German-speaking Switzerland will struggle to learn “high” German on top of the two foreign languages.

Pupils must learn “high” German in school, as it differs from Swiss-German.


All primary schools must start teaching two foreign languages by 2012.

The first language must be taught from the third primary year and the second language from the fifth year.

One of the languages must be a national language. The other is almost certain to be English.

The cantons can chose whether they introduce English or a second national language first.

Some teachers argue primary school pupils will struggle to learn two foreign languages.

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